Last week MyHeritage spoke to Rajesh Haldipur, from Mumbai, India. Rajesh faced a unique challenge earlier this year, as his grand-uncle’s 100th birthday was approaching on the horizon. “The problem,” said Rajesh, “was what do you give to a person who is turning 100, is healthy and sharp in all his faculties, who has been the de facto head of the family for 50 of his 100 years, and who is reasonably wealthy and not wanting in material means. What do you give to somebody who already has it all?”
Rajesh eventually had a brainwave, and began to think about the idea of piecing together a family tree for his grand-uncle. “I stumbled across your website MyHeritage.com, and thought: ‘why not?’ I thought I might actually try and put this together. My only regret now is that I didn’t think of doing it earlier!”
So Rajesh went off and began to start piecing his tree together. The task wasn’t without its difficulties. For one thing, this was the first project of this kind that Rajesh had attempted. Perhaps more pressingly, it was a tree that had a deadline: whereas most of us can build our trees at our leisure and as our free time allows, Rajesh had to get it done before his grand-uncle’s birthday just a few months ahead.
“I don’t think I realized the enormity of the task at first,” said Rajesh. “It’s not just adding the people; it’s the full names, the dates, the details, ensuring they’re connected right, adding photographs, connecting the photographs to the right names. And when you’re looking at several generations, the work increases exponentially as you go further back, with more and more individuals to account for. The MyHeritage website did make life a lot easier, and it gave me a place to enter and host all the details conveniently.”
Unlike a lot of genealogists, Rajesh’s research centred not so much on records and documents as it did on the testimony of his family members. “This is a big family, and I would simply ask people about it. Some of the individuals are older, but while they may have occasional difficulties with short-term memory, they can remember their youth like it was yesterday. I would scribble down all the names and relationships they’d told me, and then sit down and put the details into the MyHeritage.com Family Tree Builder. If I didn’t know something, I’d just pick up the phone and speak to somebody, and then after the initial input, I’d run a couple of rounds of cross-checks and corrections with other people, especially the relationships of the generations. Gradually, I managed to piece things together.”
The project gathered a life of its own, according to Rajesh, for two reasons. First, the website allowed family members the world over to see the tree, and to contribute by making comments, adding photographs, emailing advice, and so on. Secondly, the occasional automatic email updates gave people a sense that there was continuous progress with the project, and maintained high levels of enthusiasm throughout.
“The fact that we had it all on the website really enabled collaboration,” said Rajesh. “There were so many people who could look at something and say ‘this is wrong’, or ‘I want to change this’, and the process allowed the tree to improve and grow far faster than it otherwise would have done. It started with just me sitting in my office, and turned into a project where my work was just one part of the wider family creation.”
Rajesh’s grand-uncle “doesn’t like computers and the Internet one bit”, so Rajesh decided to create a 74-page book out of the project. This threw up its own problem as the deadline drew near, when a pleasant surprise came into the family. “Just after I’d sent the project to the printers, one of my cousins had a son," said Rajesh. "You might have expected it to be too late, but I managed to edit the tree to add in the new arrival, then send it to the printers in time to be included. We got the youngest member of the family in the tree just in time!”
And what was the family response to the gift? “Oh, I’ve had some fantastic responses from my family members – they have just been amazing,” Rajesh said. “My grand-uncle loved it, but I’ve had kind words from all over the family. My family now, like many others, is spread out all over the globe. I’ve had responses from the US, the UK, all over the world. It was amazing to see all these parts of the family come together over the tree.”
“And it really created something for the family to talk about,” added Rajesh. “In a way we became united around the project. There were surprising secondary effects like this. Primarily, yes, people got to enjoy the book, but at the same time people reunited, found a talking point, and found out new things about each other which they hadn’t known before.”
Now at almost 600 members, Rajesh hopes his tree will continue to grow even further. According to Rajesh, “As the initial project came near to an end, I gave thought to how I could keep this project alive and kicking. I realized that it had to become continually and increasingly inclusive.”
So he found another genealogy enthusiast in the family, who is now co-site manager of the project, and is adding more and more people from her indirect relatives. Now, the aims for the tree are even more ambitious – to go beyond the family itself, and to reach out to cover the wider Chitrapur Saraswat community, a community that is small in numbers, but high on education and culture, that settled down primarily in Karnataka, a province in South of India. “We now have the ambition of mapping the entire community’s population, living and dead,” said Rajesh. “Given that we are a relatively small community, I expect this could be completed within 4 years, with work and content accelerating as more collaborators pitch in. Soon, it will be not only a personal resource, but a community resource, with many people in the community taking ownership of the project.
“Thanks to all of you for making a difficult task easy, and for making it possible to realize a task which would otherwise have been just a dream.”